Tuesday, February 23, 2016

When Abstinence Is Brilliance

...so here I am, for approximately the 16,000th time, trying to time when I should attempt to see this bird. I will chase the shit out of a rare bird, as you know, but goddamn...I am not a big fan of driving hours and hours, just to turn around and waste my time driving more and more hours. That said, I don't want to be stupid about this...a few years ago I decided not to look for a relatively reliable Gyrfalcon (life bird) and King Eider (state bird) that were wintering in Humboldt, because I didn't have much money at the time (a poor reason) and because...because I was stupid (the main reason). I do not want to be stupid again.

It was not long ago when I shared these words with you, dear readers, dearest nerds. I wrote them about the Great Gray Owl in Humboldt County...but I think they are worth sharing again, because I recently found myself in an almost identical situation. It was not a Great Gray Owl this time, but a Snowy Owl.

Yes, a Snowy Owl, a vagrant that carries much positive baggage. A month after Great Gray appeared, it was replaced in Humboldt (aka the Minnesota of California) by a Snowy Owl. Snowy Owl is an alarmingly rare bird in California, a species that goes years at a time without gracing this birdiful state...and goddamn, that is a bird I would love to see in California. It was located just south of the mouth of Humboldt Bay, in an area readily accessed by the public; totally chaseable. The bird was first found on a Thursday, and was seen by many on Friday. With no obligations I couldn't avoid for the weekend, what was to stop me from going up to look for it Saturday?

I hemmed and hawed all day Friday. I weighed the same exact pros and cons that I have considered seemingly countless times over the years...the 10+ hours of driving that is entailed, the fact that I just did that drive a couple weeks ago, the hordes of birders to be dealt with, friends I would or would not see due to the timing of the visit, and of course the most important factor of all...the possibility that it would be a major dip. Brambring, as you know, is never far from my mind.

Finally, after deep contemplation and much bourbon, a decision was reached: I would wait. I was going to abstain from the chase. If the bird stuck around until the next weekend, I would go for it then. I've seen Snowy Owls before at least, so there was no lifer anxiety that I had to combat. 

On Saturday morning, I awoke with a start. I had felt a great disturbance, as if dozens of nerd voices cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced. I feared something terrible had happened. The first thing I did when I got out of bed was check the listservs...and it all made sense. Had the owl been seen yet? No. Noon rolled around...no owl. One passed, then two, then three...no owl. An official announcement was broadcast that evening, claiming that no one saw the owl that day, despite many people scouring the area. Would the bird turn up Sunday? Sunday came and went...the owl was gone. Countless birders had driven from all over the state to see this bird, and all had dipped.

Suddenly, I went from a lowly fate of being resigned to getting gripped off that weekend to reveling in the victory that only a brilliant birder mastermind can understand. I had been vaulted from the depths of jealousy into the high, pure air that winning gamblers live to breathe. I had done it! In the long, storied history of my birding life, never before had I narrowly avoided such a miserable, costly dip...by deciding not to look for the bird at all. Trusting my razor-sharp instincts to put off searching for this state MEGA paid off in massive dividends. 

These three Snowy Owls were all photographed at Ocean Shores, Washington. I may have only seen Snowy Owls once, but at least I saw ten!

So what lesson can be learned here? The only one that I pluck from the ether is that it is good to be the #7 birder in the U.S., you feel me? It takes years of success and suffering to be able to discern when to drop everything and go, and when to stay up late drinking whisky and sleeping in while the sad masses wander the sand dunes like catatonically depressed zombies...luck had nothing to do with this. You just have to accept the fact that you are going to miss things like a Brambring and a Ivory Gull, but will be rewarded with a Common Scoter and a Nutting's Flycatcher. Maybe some day you too can brag about how you didn't bother to chase a Snowy Owl, and came out of the affair a birding hero.

So venture forth, drive hours, dip on birds, and get angry. Loathe yourself. Spew venom about your significant other who prevented you from seeing the bird the day before. Get it out of the way...it is unavoidable. It is your destiny. Then, and only then, will you know if you should stay...or if you should go.


  1. Ugh. Snowy Owl chasing. Ugh. We had an unconfirmed sighting two weeks ago only 2 hours drive north and I chose to not go, because I knew that searching for a myth of an owl in death fog with 200 feet visibility would only end in tears. I highly suspect a misidentified Barn Owl. That or the Snowy Owl spent a day hanging out in the worst air quality in the entire US and said fuck it and headed back to Idaho.

  2. Way to win, dude. That is a sweet feeling when a vagrant just vanishes (and along with it goes all the dilemmas associated with the decision). Maybe I'm in the minority on this one, but lately I find great relief when the chase option has been removed completely.

    It's analytic birder behavior posts like these why I really enjoy your blog. You excel in this particular genre.

    If you get hard up for a Snowy fix and the other great northern Owls, give MN a try. I've heard murmurings that next year could be an irruption year (including BOOW).

    1. It is a relief, no doubt. Too many dips can give a birder PTSD.

      I like the "analytic" posts as well...I might have to revisit the obsession of calling everything hybrids soon.

      BOOW may be the most difficult bird left for me in the Lower 48 that isnt considered a vagrant. That bird would change everything.

  3. Did you ever consider that maybe the owl figured out that #7 wasn't coming and dejectedly set sail back for the prairie?

    In any case, Star Wars and The Clash? Good work.

    1. Correct Greg. I wish I couldve used a deeper cut from the Clash's discography, but that one was just too perfect.

    2. When [the listserv report] kicks at your front door, how you gonna come? With your hands on your head or on the trigger of your [DSLR]? You're right. Doesn't work as well.

    3. white owl riot, I wanna riot, white owl riot a state bird of my own

  4. My comrade and I made the journey on Saturday... just could not pass up the chance with it only being a 3.5 hour drive from Sonoma County.
    And when a Burrowing Owl and Short-eared Owl were sighted early, the thought of an epic owl trifecta seemed tauntingly possible.
    Either way, there is no regret! The bay and spit were new sights for me and there were still many cool-ass birds around.

    1. Good, I'm glad it wasn't a total bust and the bay is great. BUOW is a tough bird to get in Humboldt! I still would have stuck my head in a dune and cried though.